BOOK REVIEW: Smoke, by Dan Vyleta

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BOOK REVIEW: Smoke, by Dan VyletaTitle: Smoke: A Novel by Dan Vyleta
Published by Doubleday
Published: May 24th 2016
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 448
Format: eBook
Source: Edelweiss
Goodreads

England. A century ago, give or take a few years.
An England where people who are wicked in thought or deed are marked by the Smoke that pours forth from their bodies, a sign of their fallen state. The aristocracy do not smoke, proof of their virtue and right to rule, while the lower classes are drenched in sin and soot. An England utterly strange and utterly real. An elite boarding school where the sons of the wealthy are groomed to take power as their birthright. Teachers with mysterious ties to warring political factions at the highest levels of government. Three young people who learn everything they’ve been taught is a lie—knowledge that could cost them their lives. A grand estate where secrets lurk in attic rooms and hidden laboratories. A love triangle. A desperate chase. Revolutionaries and secret police. Religious fanatics and coldhearted scientists. Murder. A London filled with danger and wonder. A tortured relationship between a mother and a daughter, and a mother and a son. Unexpected villains and unexpected heroes. Cool reason versus passion. Rich versus poor. Right versus wrong, though which is which isn’t clear.

Dan Vyleta’s Smoke is what you would get if you crossed Henry James with Philip Pullman and is set it in some post-apocalyptic Victorian-ish England in which Smoke is the manifestation of humanity’s emotional existence – the soul, the spirit, some other sublime aspect of ourselves. London itself is a cesspit of Smoke and Soot, running rampant with all sorts of behavior. There is a lot of interplay with levels of class, with the ideas of right and wrong, and with adhering to social expectations of propriety or letting go and running with base emotions.

Smoke is never fully defined with no origin story or full resolution by the end. Readers looking for a solid beginning and end will not find that here. Smoke is something that came into existence a few hundred years before this story began, and society’s leaders rewrote history to include the existence of Smoke as if it has always existed. The upper class are allowed to rule and govern because they are pure and restrained, while the lower class must rot in Soot and Smoke. But it’s discovered that the upper class, especially the ones who control the power with money and influence, have ways in which to control the Smoke through special candies developed to absorb all release of the body’s Smoke. Conversely, the upper class have devised a cigarette in which one can enjoy the pleasures of Smoke without entirely being consumed by it (at great expense, of course).

Three school-aged people – Thomas, Charlie, and Livia – discover the lies in which their society lives and go to great lengths to find some kind of resolution. It might seem a bit anticlimactic to those who are unfamiliar with British literature and/or culture or the Gothic genre, but it is quite liberating if one is on the side of the young ones. Embracing the Smoke, ultimately embracing emotion (passion, anger, yearning, courage, etc.), is where one finds personal freedom.

I should add that the description advertises a love triangle. Without any spoilers, it’s the first time I’ve been wholly pleased with the outcome of that love triangle at the end. Writers, take note.

Vyleta’s immensely detailed descriptions evoked that style of Henry James, the social commentary reminded me a bit of Dickens, and the use of the elements and religious tyranny with children discovering the truth reminded me of Pullman. Stir in a pinch of Collins, a dash of Doyle, and a handful of soot, and you’ve got Smoke. It’s one of the best books I’ve read all year.

Thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy!

A Disjointed Dystopia; a review of Howard Jacobson’s J

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A Disjointed Dystopia; a review of Howard Jacobson’s JTitle: J by Howard Jacobson
Published by Hogarth
Published: September 1st 2015
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Blogging for Books
Goodreads

You are no different today from who you were a year ago, a month ago even. What’s changed is how you appear. How you appear to yourself and how you will appear to the world. It’s all illusion. Identity is nothing but illusion.

J took forever for me to read. FOR-EVER. Partially because I’ve been in a weird state of mind, but mostly because of the book itself. It’s touted as dystopian fiction reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, but it just falls flat. I wanted to know more of WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. I think I got spoiled by Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy in which she does reveal the backstory to everything throughout the course of the trilogy. J just trudged on disjointedly. Had it been about one hundred pages shorter, it might have been more engaging, but there were too many offshoots of irrelevance that distracted me from the main story at hand and left me disinterested for weeks at a time. Jacobson can write, however, and there are several sections in the novel that left me rereading more for the sake of grammar and sentence structure than for the story itself.

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As an aside, I still haven’t figured out what the “qualifications” for a Man Booker are. Either I should research this, or read more nominees and winners (which I should do anyway). I also think I’m getting tired of the whole view of “identity” from an older white male’s point of view, which is probably another small reason I didn’t personally get much out of this book.

REVIEW: Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard

Red Queen - Victoria Aveyard

“Anyone can betray anyone.”

TITLE: Red Queen
AUTHOR: Victoria Aveyard
PUBLISHED: 2015
PAGES: 383
FORMAT: Hardcover
SOURCE: Library
RATING: 3/5

SUMMARY: Mare Barrow’s world is divided by blood — those with red and those with silver. Mare and her family are lowly Reds, destined to serve the Silver elite whose supernatural abilities make them nearly gods. Mare steals what she can to help her family survive, but when her best friend is conscripted into the army she gambles everything to win his freedom. A twist of fate leads her to the royal palace itself, where, in front of the king and all his nobles, she discovers a power of her own—an ability she didn’t know she had. Except… her blood is Red.

To hide this impossibility, the king forces her into the role of a lost Silver princess and betroths her to one of his own sons. As mare is drawn further into the Silver world, she risks her new position to aid the Scarlet Guard—the leaders of a Red rebellion. Her actions put into motion a deadly and violent dance, pitting prince against prince—and Mare against her own heart. – from the book jacket

REVIEW: Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen has been getting a lot of hype in the last several months either on the bookstore front, the book bloggers’ front, and more recently with Elizabeth Banks reportedly to direct the film. I finally got Red Queen this past week when it finally came through the library for me (ugh, holds and hold queues and self-imposed book buying bans, but yay, free books!). Once I got it, I put everything else I’ve been dabbling in reading on hold. I’ve been through a weird and frustrating reading slump this year, so I’m literally about to do anything to keep myself reading, including writing about what I read! That’s more for another post.

I liked it.

It didn’t wow the socks off of me and it didn’t disappoint me, which is why it gets three stars out of five instead of anything less or more. I just want more? I’m so happy there’s a sequel coming out next year, because I feel as if Red Queen is just a setup for so, so much more. It’s a lot like Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass in the sense that the first novel in the series/trilogy is all about setting the stage for the real action. I don’t know what my real opinion about Red Queen and the other two books in the trilogy will be until they come out. I’ll have more of an I love this!! or an It’s just okay. opinion once the second one comes out, I think. I tend to read trilogies as cohesive narratives rather than individual books.

Now that I’ve finished it and have thought about it for most of the day, Red Queen draws on a lot of popular tropes and themes in popular fantasy and YA fiction, and that’s okay. There are threads of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, themes of Cinderella (the title had me hoping for an Alice in Wonderland vibe, but alas), X-Men mutant abilities, and the dystopian society of The Hunger Games woven in the narrative. While that might seem stale to some, I liked it. I thought it was an engaging, entertaining read. It sets the stage for more intrigue and drama, and that’s good because I want more.

The biggest issue I had with it was the love… square? Maven is by far the most interesting, Cal is sort of boring, and there’s not much I really gathered from Kilorn (and that’s probably because I started this book when I couldn’t sleep at about three in the morning, so the first few chapters are a little fuzzy in my memory). I’m hoping that this love square is happening just because Mare hasn’t been out of her Red world much and because she’s still figuring herself out in the midst of everything. And it’s not the main focus of the book. It’s sort of a plot point for the climax of the narrative, but it doesn’t overshadow anything else.

Overall, I enjoyed it! I’m looking forward to more (and I think I’ve said that about three times now, oops).